You’ll never suffer cold feet again, thanks to this essential piece of Japanese tradition.
Ready to spend your evenings curled up by a warm, cosy … table?
It’s called the kotatsu (こたつ), and it’s one of Japan’s most brilliant inventions: a heated table covered with a specially made blanket, or kotatsu futon (炬燵布団), that keeps your body warm throughout chilly days and nights. Traditional Japanese seating is on a tatami floor, so most kotatsu tables are only 36 centimetres high, and paired with floor cushions instead of chairs. They’re easy to use: just plug in the kotatsu’s electric heater (attached to the underside of the frame), spread out the futon and slip inside. The futon traps heat around your legs and feet, quickly giving you a warm, snug seat—which is vital, since you won’t find central heating in Japanese households.
But, you might ask, how can I use the table if it’s covered in blankets? Worry not! The kotatsu frame and tabletop are separate pieces, so the futon is draped under the tabletop, leaving plenty of room to read magazines, drink tea or enjoy a full family meal. Even your household pets will love snuggling up under the kotatsu. This little heated table is so cosy that some people spend all winter curled up beneath it, a phenomenon called kotatsumuri—a slang term that plays on the Japanese word for “snail”: katatsumuri.
There are actually two styles of kotatsu. The second places the table over a 100-centimetre gap in the floor—a style that was popular during the 17th century, before the tables were electric! Households today tend to use the former style of kotatsu because they are affordable and can be placed in any sort of home, from a traditional farmhouse to a studio apartment. The modern kotatsu is a classic Japanese staple: no winter would be complete without a group of loved ones gathered around the kotatsu to enjoy nabe, a savoury hot-pot dish cooked right at the table—or to eat juicy, palm-sized mikan (also known as unshiu or satsuma oranges). The kotatsu can also be easily stored or converted to an ordinary table once spring arrives, making it a unique manifestation of Japanese seasonal awareness and economical use of space.
The kotatsu has a long history—it’s been curing cold feet for almost seven centuries. Prior to the Second World War, kotatsu were heated with a charcoal brazier, and the aroma was considered part of its charm. In fact, Chigetsu (1634–1718), a well-known haiku poetess, wrote a poem commemorating the passing seasons by mixing the classic early spring scent of plum blossoms with the simple winter comfort of the kotatsu:
oh so faintly
the smell of charcoal too—spring kotatsu.
honobono to/ sumi mo niou ya/ harugotatsu
Here is another kotatsu poem from one of Japan’s most famous haiku poets, Kobayashi Issa (1763–1827), paying tribute to the kotatsu’s romantic side:
squeezing in beside the one I love—kotatsu.
omou hito no/ soba ni warikomu/ kotatsu kana
THE ETIQUETTE OF KOTATSU
Readers, if you ever have a chance, try out the kotatsu and join a centuries-old Japanese tradition. To help you on your cultural journey, here are some useful tips.
DO NOT invite too many friends inside
Things might get a little too steamy if your kotatsu party is overcrowded. Like Issa, you might have to squeeze in tight beside your secret crush.
DO NOT wear shoes in the kotatsu!
Illustrations by Reiko Ema